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Bakes of the Past

“Lovely afternoons are made of cafe au lait and French macarons.”

I had always thought of springtime in Paris to be a sunny, warm experience with flowering trees lining the streets and sweet perfume radiating in the air. It was nothing like the experience that I had on the slightly chilled afternoon. The street and walk were as grey as the skies above, with no sun to shine in near sight. Yes, even the historical buildings of the streets gave off a grey color and a sense that they were letting out a sigh of indifference. This was a normal day in Paris in April, but very abnormal for a 17-year-old me, who had never been so far away from home or her parents ever in her life.

I wasn’t all on my own, I was with my peers and a handful of teachers from school. But I had come on this trip to see the beauty of Barcelona, Spain, not Paris, France. So what was I doing in the dreary streets of Paris, wandering by myself? The school had organized a trip with the French class and the Spanish class. I was taking Spanish, but before we made it to Spain our first portion of the trip would be in Paris. Not that I was complaining about being able to go to Paris, France it just wasn’t at all like I expected.

Besides the flowering tree-lined streets I also had an image in my head of Paris being a romantic place. A place of fashion, of culture, and, most importantly to me, a place of the finest baked goods. But what I found Paris to be on that day was grey, with the constant threat of rain. The buildings, unlike what I had seen in New York City, were squat and unintimidating. Every now and then there would be a tree, but its limbs were bare except for a few sad hanging leaves. But I remained undeterred by the lack of luster the city had, and instead plowed ahead on the unknown street to something I knew very well. Dessert.

Walking into the small Ladurée Pâtisserie was like when Dorothy entered the land of Oz and everything went from black and white to color. The little shop was bright, it was warm, and most of all there was every color imaginable to look at. Pastel blues, greens, pinks, purples, yellows, orange, and red macarons decorated the counters. The shop smelled of sweet. That is all that I remember it is like the smell of pure cotton candy, caramel, and sugar. I knew, standing in the doorway taking it all in, that I had found a home away from home.

Now, you may be wondering, was 17-year-old me culturally aware and appreciative of this experience. No, is the short answer. I had no clue how lucky I was to happen to walk into a Ladurée Pâtisserie, I had no clue what a macaron was, and I definitely didn’t have a clue about how this experience (the whole experience, traveling to Europe, trying different desserts, all of it) was going to change me.

I gazed in awe at the display case of the beautiful desserts. I had never been to a Pâtisserie in the U.S. and my first experience was one in Paris. I noticed the abundance of macaron choices and decided to pick these as my dessert of choice. I pointed to a highly decorative box which was green with a gold scroll printed on it. The inside, when I opened it, was a shiny gold that reflected the happy little macarons inside. It wasn’t until I got back to my hotel that I tried my first bite of a macaron. The soft crunch of the shell on the outside, chewy on the inside with a luxurious cream filling in the middle. It was delicious.

I then set out to make my very own macarons to recreate that perfect memory of beautiful bliss. Of course, my first batch failed miserably. They didn’t form a crust, or feet, which I soon found out was very important to a macaron. They stuck to the parchment paper and were not shiny on top. I was devastated and was ready to give up on making macarons and leave it to French Pâtisserie chefs. But then I found a wonderful book. A lovely, wonderful, insightful book. It was actually passed along to me by a family friend, who had no intention of baking them herself. The book is called I Love Macarons by Hisako Ogita. It is Hisako that taught me how to make a proper macaron, how to fold the batter properly, to mix in the whipped meringue, and to add color and flavor to the shells.

Ever since then I have loved to make my own macarons for any occasion, 4th of July, family gatherings, birthdays, and just because. It can be laborious but every time I successfully make a batch (because I definitely still make mistakes and have my share of disasters) I am transported back to Paris, France in the Ladurée Pâtisserie smelling the sweet smells of the air, thinking, this is truly what the Paris experience is. And isn’t that what the baking experience is all about? Taking us back to a nostalgic time, or simply transporting us away to the other side of the world.

It has been almost seven years since I’ve been to Paris, France. And as an homage to my travels, my next blog post will be about making a batch of macarons just in time for valentines day. I hope that this recipe will transport you to another place, or maybe make you dream of a place you haven’t been. I hope you’ll give the recipe a try, baker, reader, and continue as always to keep baking.

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